ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
Indeed, Alabama may be the epicenter of the unholy worship of college sports. “They talk about how much religion matters in the south,” says Birmingham President David Pollick, “But no, I’d rather face God than football.” -Commentary by Sports Illustrated contributor Frank Deford on NPR (Jan. 10).
College sports is big business these days. If fans think coaches and athletes compete merely for the love of the game, they do not live in the real world.
In the first weeks of 2007, top football teams reaped millions of dollars in television fees while fans spent millions more to watch their favorite teams compete on the gridiron.
This financial bonanza, along with increased publicity of a school’s athletic program is enough to excite even the wanna-be’s of college sports. Every college and university, large or small, is trying to reach for the pot of gold that’s just beyond their reach.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Frank Deford believes the pot of gold is a myth, at best. “Only a handful of universities make any money at all,” he says. The rest keep trying for that elusive pot of gold while draining precious resources into an ever larger whirlpool that never ends.
Deford’s recent commentary on National Public Radio highlights the decision by the board of directors at Birmingham Southern College to eliminate athletic scholarships.
The school of 1,300 students is listed as a “Best Buy” by the Fiske Guide to Colleges and ranked 74th by U.S. News’ “America’s Best Colleges” in 2007.
Jim Stevens, the chairman of the board at Birmingham Southern, discovered his college spent more than $3.5 million on full athletic scholarships while awarding only one full academic scholarship during the past year.
Shortly thereafter, the board eliminated all athletic scholarships and dropped the college from Division I to Division III in the NCAA. Currently, students participate in sports because they want to, not because they are paid performers.
Within one year, freshman applications were up. Alumni contributions increased dramatically. The percentage of minorities in the student body increased from 6 percent to 14 percent. They even added a football team, plus four other team sports for men and women. By year’s end, almost twice as many students had participated in sports as before.
In my opinion, the decision by Birmingham Southern College is like a breath of fresh air in a stale, overly obsessed world of college sports. The school’s decision took guts and tremendous courage to go against the general wisdom in the sports world that academic institutions must depend on athletic programs for their success in the marketplace of learning.
I doubt the school’s decision means winning is not an option anymore. On the contrary, they are competitive within their conference.
“Giving up scholarships greatly improved, yes, athletics, at Birmingham Southern,” Deford says.
What has changed, however, is their philosophy about sports and its place in academic institutions. Their first priority is to maintain high academic excellence and prepare the student for a successful life after graduation. Sports play an important, but secondary, role in fulfilling that mission.
Without a doubt, sports has a positive role to play in a student’s learning experience. Sports teaches lessons about teamwork and encourages the formation of a healthy attitude, whether an athlete wins or loses. It develops character and builds confidence in one’s ability. Sports teaches the student to persevere in times of adversity.
Beyond that, however, sports becomes the unruly giant that dominates an educational system and becomes the “tail that wags the dog.” And this affects more than the immediate financial component of higher education.
Classroom schedules fall victim to this tail-wagging at the outset. Consequently, the student-athlete falls behind classroom and study time before the athletic season begins.
It is my hope the courageous decision by Birmingham Southern College to realign its financial resources with its core mission will catch on in other schools throughout the United States. Without a doubt, this change is long overdue.